Fighting is a messy endeavor, and one could argue the whole point of martial arts has always been to rationalize it in a way that could be explained, taught, and reproduced. To this end, guards, blows and plays have been designed to describe in a succinct manner a possibly infinite collection of fencing exchanges. A system then allows a fencer to assess the situation they’re in and make an informed decision based on the relevant stimuli they’ve interpreted.
This tactical process is often modeled as a decision tree: a fencing exchange consists in a series of logical decisions based on the opponent’s reaction. The goal of a HEMA instructor according this pedagogical framework is therefore to teach their students the proper pattern recognition skills as well as the adequate counters. However, does this model actually match the fencing art taught by Fiore de’i Liberi?
Simple situation, complicated answers
Let’s ignore Fiore’s armizare for a moment and, as a thought experiment, try to figure out what would be an intuitive follow-up to this common sparring situation: starting from your dominant side, you have beaten the opponent’s blade away. This beat may have been a parry against a cut, or a preparatory action against an extended sword; we will focus on the latter case for simplicity’s sake, but it does not make much of a difference, if any. It turns out clearing the opponent’s sword leaves an obvious open path for a direct false edge mezzano to the head with a passing step.
A common reaction to such a sharp pressure in an actual sparring situation is to lift the hands and almost fortuitously parry the incoming false edge cut.
As a consequence, the fencer initiating the beat has to look for another opening – they may use, as an example, an indirect rising cut to the arms, the elbow, or the armpit.
However, a more experienced fencer can yield to the beat and use the momentum to chamber a blow such as a fendente to the head. The likely result of this counter-offensive action is a double hit.
To counter this cut around, the beat has to be followed immediately by a parry (performed here with the false edge), then a riposte once the opponent’s incoming attack has been properly dealt with. Note that the passing step has to be aborted in order to avoid walking right into the incoming attack.
What ought to be a simple situation is quickly devolving into a sprawling decision tree. Knowing how to answer every single move the opponent can perform with a tailored, perfect counter is of very little use if you have trouble determining which technique the opponent will try in the first place – something that is easier said than done, as the three situations outlined previously share the same tactile feedback.
Our technical framework fell prey to overspecialization: to each action, we paired an optimal counter, but we did not take into account the burden of split-second decision making based on partial information. As a consequence, a tiny slip in one’s assessment of the opponent’s behavior may lead to an utterly inappropriate reaction. Fortunately, it turns out our beloved fencing master had a practical answer to this crippling issue.
A simple play for simple minds
Fiore’s third play of zogho largo, the crossing at the middle of the swords, may indeed provide us with actionable advice that we can apply to this problematic situation.
[Getty, 25v-a] Here, we are also crossed in wide play, but at the middle of the sword. As soon as the cross is made, I let my sword glide over his hands; if I pass out of line with my right foot, I can push a thrust to the opponent’s chest, as you will see pictured right after this. (tr. by Tom Leoni and Greg Mele)
[Getty 25r-b] I have completed the play of my Master by performing the parry and immediately doing what he said: first, I wounded the opponent in the arms, then I placed a thrust into his chest. (tr. by Tom Leoni and Greg Mele)
The canonical context of this crossing isn’t really clear: Guy Windsor and Akademia Szermiezy favor a rising percussive parry from a low guard against an incoming cut; the Armizare society would rather use a counter-cut from posta di donna; I have dabbled with preparatory beats against an extended blade. In my experience, the exact setup doesn’t make much of a difference, as long as you are free to leave the bind safely afterwards.
In any case, once the opponent’s blade has been cleared, you are free to perform the canonical play and footwork: aim for the opponent’s left arm with a small fendente-like motion, then thrust over their arm. At the moment, this technique may seem convoluted, given the wide opening available.
However, as discussed earlier, the opponent is unlikely to remain passive if their blade has been beaten away. But lifting their hands is of very little help here: the left arm remains a vulnerable target, and you don’t even have to alter your motion if you perform the technique properly, passing to the opponent’s left.
Finally, if the opponent yields to the beat and chambers a blow, striking their left arm with a tight fendente suppresses and stifles the incoming cut in mid-motion. This technique is performed here with the last third (the tutta spada) of a blunt sword in a manner similar to the slices favored by the Liechtenauerian tradition. However, it seems likely that performing the same motion with the first third of a sharp sword, as depicted by Fiore, would still result in a pinning effect and may even create an opening for a thrust.
A single technique can therefore handle a wide variety of situations, even if it isn’t necessarily the optimal counter in any of the use cases we explored and may even seem needlessly complicated when the opening is obvious.
One size fits all
It may indeed be argued that we are over-interpreting the tactical implications of a simple largo play. However, Fiore de’i Liberi does explicitly value the sheer versatility of some of his favored techniques. Among them, rising beats from low guards may be some of the most common armizare parries performed with a wide variety of weapons against all sorts of blows.
[Getty 31r-b] I’ll wait for my opponents one by one, without fear of failure from any cut, thrust, or hand-held weapon thrown at me. I’ll advance the front foot, pass at an angle against the opponent’s weapon and beat it to his left side. After making my parry, I’ll instantly attack. (tr. by Tom Leoni and Greg Mele)
All it takes to parry any incoming strike is a last minute correction mentioned in the horseback section.
[Getty 43v-a] Bear in mind that thrusts and riversi must be beaten to the outside, that is, sideways, and not upward; fendenti should similarly beaten to the outside, lifting slightly the opponent’s weapon.
[Getty 43v-b] Bear in mind that this guard counters all the blows both on the mandritto and the riverso side, and is usable against right- or left-handed opponents. (tr. by Tom Leoni and Greg Mele)
This sweeping, rising beat from the left can intercept any strike if it is timed well. As a consequence, it may be less vulnerable to feints than a simple block from a centered, point in line guard: while the latter is a tighter and simpler motion, it requires a fencer to predict at the right time the exact opening the opponent will be aiming for, unlike Fiore’s favorite parry that is only timing-dependent. In a similar fashion, modern olympic fencers often rely on powerful sweeping parries that move through multiple lines, using several sweeps in a row if needs be.
A good technique should therefore strive to cover as many use cases as is reasonably possible, even if it isn’t necessarily the optimal action at any given point: a reliable, versatile parry remains more valuable than a fickle single-time counter. By unloading a fencer’s cognitive load, a good system allows them to focus on a few core motions and their tactical setup so they can be executed without hesitation, at the right measure, with speed and strength.
One could even argue the same principle can be extended to Fiore’s entire fencing system: through the use of guards, a skilled armizare fencer can significantly reduce the amount of tactical decisions they have to make. But this is a topic for another article…